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Arthur's lifelong dedication to learning

At 85, Arthur Cowley decided it was time to go back to school. He began his third undergraduate degree, continuing his lifelong passion for education

Arthur Cowley believes you’re never too old to learn new things. He should know. At the age of 87, Arthur is currently studying a Bachelor of Creative Arts at the University of Wollongong, the oldest student to ever begin a degree at the University.

Now in his second year, Arthur says when he first began the degree, at 85, he was asked whether he would like to study part time or full time.

“I said I wanted to study full-time because who knows where I’ll be in six years. I don’t have that much time to waste!” he says with a laugh.

Arthur is a familiar figure around the creative arts building. He is active in class and in the studio, relishing the opportunity to study for pleasure rather than for career ambitions.

He stands out among his peers – a 60-odd year age difference helps – but he loves being surrounded by young, enthusiastic students who share his passion for creative arts.

Although he admits, with a laugh, to using his age to his advantage.

“I sometimes pretend I’m a doddering old man who doesn’t know what’s happening,” he says, with a grin.

Arthur’s career began in a very different field and in a very different era.

Born in 1931, his early years were shaped by the turmoil of World War II. He lost his father, who was in the Navy, during the conflict, in 1942. Arthur’s mother went to work to support the family, followed shortly by Arthur, who left school at the age of 13.

“You couldn’t leave school until you were 15 in those days. There were only a handful of high schools in Sydney at the time, but when the war ended, and the troops came back, the schools were bursting,” he recalls.

As a teenager, Arthur found work as a tradesman and spent his days at Cockatoo Island, in Sydney’s Harbour, helping to build ships. It was the years immediately following the war, when the world was attempting to rebuild and the future was uncertain.

“I went to sea after the war. I was working at Cockatoo Docks, on Cockatoo Island. They were still building bombers and ships for two or three years after the war ended, because the contracts that had been made during the war were still running,” Arthur says. “I was working 12 hours a day, six days a week, and I thought there must be easier ways of making a quid.”

The opportunity for a career change arose after Arthur received a teachers’ college scholarship to become a manual arts teacher. It seemed an easier path than working the long, grinding hours of a tradesman, so off he went to Bathurst Teachers’ College – before quickly realising he was actually meant to be in Newcastle.

“They [the Department of Education] sent me to the wrong place!” he exclaims. “I got to Bathurst Teachers College, but I was actually meant to go to Newcastle. They said I had to complete a month of practice teaching, so if I did that at Bathurst, I could then transfer to Newcastle. But in the first fortnight I met my wife, and everything changed. I became a small schools teacher, rather than a manual arts teacher.”

Arthur Cowley V2 MainArthur Cowley in the studio at UOW. Photos: Paul Jones

He was a teacher for close to 30 years, moving from primary schools to later become the manual arts teacher he always wanted to be.

Arthur was in his 50s and relished his career as a manual arts teacher when a school inspector, visiting his school as part of an annual inspection, suggested he gain a university degree.

“I had a job I loved, but I was told it might help me get more money if I passed the first year, so I gave it a go. It was a bit of a doddle, to be honest.

“My wife started studying too, so it became a bit of a competition between us. She finished her Master’s first but I wasn’t far behind.”

Before his current degree, all his study was done part-time, while juggling the complexities of work and family life with his three children.

In a way, Arthur never stopped studying. His first degree – a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Education and Psychology at Macquarie University – was followed by a Masters and a PhD, and a career change into psychology.

He spent 16 years as a psychologist, largely working with children, which he describes as one of the greatest joys of his life.

“I loved working with the young whippersnappers,” says Arthur, who has 16 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren of his own. “They were so much fun. I loved hearing their stories and spending my days working with them.”

In amongst the big-ticket careers, Arthur has also worn a number of other hats, including a refrigerator repairman, a job for which he had no experience or qualifications. But, in a dictum that seems to encapsulate his attitude towards life in general, he decided to give it a go at the time, thinking “what’s the worst that could happen?”

The latest chapter in Arthur’s life – that of a budding artist and university student – was sparked by his innate curiosity and desire to keep his mind active.

A resident at IRT’s Seaview at Woonona, Arthur was given a scholarship by IRT, a non-profit seniors’ lifestyle and care provider, to pursue his interest in creative arts.

He is relishing being in the classroom – full-time – and getting the chance to do something he has never done before. While many things have changed about the university experience, including the prevalence of technology, he enjoys every day of the degree.

“When I was first studying psychology, journal articles spanned eight universities. Now it’s all available at the click of a button,” Arthur says.

“I’d never studied art so I wanted to do something different. I have an innate curiosity. It’s a fault. I am passionate about education and I love school. Why should you stop learning just because you reach a certain age?

“It’s been so much fun.”